In late September 2019, Mike and I left on our second sailing charter vacation – this time involving a week in Croatia, a country located on the Adriatic Sea. For those with a foggy recollection of school geography, it borders Slovenia to the northwest, Hungary to the northeast, Serbia to the east, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Montenegro to the southeast, and shares a maritime border with Italy.
You will understand why The Lonely Planet describes Croatia as the place to turn your Mediterranean fantasties – of “balmy days by sapphire waters in the shade of ancient walled towns”– into reality. As we skirted along the Dalmatian Coast, the picturesque sights included unspoiled coves, dashing waterfalls, ancient and lush forests. The locals were welcoming, the seafood delicious and we found our experience to be steeped in a rich history of the country, it’s culture and traditional cuisine; something rather different to what we had experienced in the Seychelles archipelago. It was delightful to travel on a luxurious Sunsail catamaran, skippered by Sandro Boduljak, on a tour that presented a hidden bay around every corner and a wealth of small towns to explore as the mood took us.
Prior to arriving in Croatia, I had been unaware of the extent of the sailing market. You are met by a professional and slick operation at the Sunsail base in Agana – a sentiment that is also evident at the various mooring points at the different island points along the way.
Base facilities include water & electricity, 24-hour ablutions (shower and toilet facilities), Sunsail WIFI on all the docks, a marina restaurant and bar, a laundry service, garbage disposal, car parking spaces and an ATM. We were impressed! Additionally, we found the village of Marina to be just a short walk away, offering several restaurants and bars, two well-stocked supermarkets, a currency exchange office (in high season), pharmacy, post office and pebble beaches for swimming. An added bonus for those whose holiday is flight inclusive, is that your transport between Split Airport and Agana Marina is arranged for you – a Sunsail representative will meet you at the airport and escort you to your transfer. You can also elect to pre-book your transfer and pay the driver directly, or organise your own taxi at the airport.
On the first evening, we checked in at around 4pm and, after a quick briefing from our skipper, departed at 6pm for our first night at sea. Our Sunsail catamaran was ready for us, but if this is not the case you are free to explore the town of Agana by bicycle – no charge! The wind came up at night, making it rather chilly; be sure to pack enough warm clothing in the way of jeans and sweaters. I certainly didn’t, having overpacked for the Seychelles and this time around attempting to pack at lightly as possible [The Ultimate Seychelles Sailing Packing List]. Mike was in charge of dinner that first night, and cooked us a delicious pasta.
Anchorage was out at sea – in a large, well-sheltered bay called St Fumija, which is formed by the island of Ciovo to the north and those of St Fumija and Kraljevac to the south.
The next day, I had the opportunity to sail our 454 Leopard catamaran to shelter for the night and can’t fault designers Robertson and Caine, as it truly appears to turn cruising construction on its head. It combines all the effortless fun of modern catamaran sailing, with the additions of unmatched speed, stability and space.
This yacht has a convertible saloon that can become a double berth at maximum capacity and, similar to the Sunsail 444 (which we sailed in the Seychelles archipelago, the 454’s bespoke layout features: a forward cockpit, accessible from the main saloon, which provides even more space for socialising and relaxing; and is designed so that cooling breezes are funnelled into the revolutionised interior.
The stepped hull design dramatically improves performance, making for a fast and efficient boat with even more space than the Sunsail 444. All cabins are large and spacious, with noticeably larger hull windows and an en-suite shower room with separate head (toilet), each.
We noticed these differences in both the interior and handling. Elegant and practical, the new Sunsail 454’s reversed interior design makes optimal use of the available space for a more sociable atmosphere, and features a huge interior volume for a yacht of her size.
The large saloon and modern galley deliver total comfort, while an overhead skylight lets in even more natural light than previous models and combines with the large windows to afford a panoramic view of the exterior. All electronic navigation aids are as standard, along with plenty of additional features – including much-needed air-conditioning. Like others in the range, the 454 also offers solar panels for added battery life.
STARI GRAD (HVAR)
And shelter we needed, as a storm was headed our way on our second and third evenings! Our skipper advised us to spend the night at the town of Stari Grad, which ended up being a 48-hour stay giving us plenty of time to explore until the storm had abated.
There was plenty to keep us occupied during our wait, including:
- A 20-minute hike up Glavica Hill, an elevation overlooking Stari Grad, where you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the town, parts of Hvar, nearby islands and the mainland, stretching out below.
- The religious will enjoy the small Catholic chapel at the top, where locals leave offerings and pray to their patron saint.
- Once within the bay’s confines, you can’t help but be taken in by the impressive bell towers of the Franciscan Monastery, St Mark’s Church and the Cathedral of St Stephen.
- And then, the local fashion stores proved to be most affordable, even on the South Africa rand – meaning I could buy a few more warm items to add to my luggage.
- Lastly, I even had my nails done at a local salon where the owner, Sanja, was excited to hear I was from SA and said she only uses a proudly-SA brand – called Bio Sculpture https://www.biosculpture.co.za – which I found most impressive.
Then, a short bicycle ride from Stari Grad was the town of Jelsa, where we found intimate streets, squares and parks and did a bit of swimming. A highlight on the menu of a great little restaurant we discovered:
- A highlight on the menu of a great little restaurant we discovered, ARTICHOKE was a delicious seafood stew; and
- We couldn’t resist stopping in for a wine tasting at Duboković d.o.o Winery, that included their full selection of viticulture and some great olive oils, locally made.
I must add that we found the local knowledge of our competent skipper to be a must – it prevented us from heading out into the storm and allowed us to see and do a great deal while keeping out of the way of big tour groups and holidaying masses.
Returning to our catamaran and Sandro’s expertise, we next sailed to Pakleni (otherwise called the Paklinski islands). These are located off the southwest coast of the island of Hvar; we had noted by this point that the local name for “island” is Škoji.
We found the Laganini Lounge bar & fish house to be an absolute must; although pricey. Pakleni also offered an open-air gym for anyone mooring there overnight who would like to work out – probably best to workout first and then hit the bar! The sundowner views from the bar were amazing and we met so many other great folk on a similar sailing vac to our own. However, we decided it was a better plan to eat dinner back on our 454 Leopard, because those views – of all the moored yachts – were even more spectacular!
The next morning, our fifth, I woke up to stand-up paddle around the bay where at least 30 other yachts were moored.
Our boat came stocked with a snorkel and masks, but I had specifically requested a stand-up paddle board because I’m an avid fan of the sport. It’s a favourite activity of mine that anyone can happily include in a sailing holiday such as this. Once back in CT, I may register to take part in the Robben Island SUP Crossing once again – entries are now open; click here. I also requested that a kayak be added to our water-sport supplies, which wasn’t at all a problem for Sunsail (is anything?). This, and the SUP, were optional extras.
VIS This was also the day we sailed on to Vis, the town where Mama Mia 2 was filmed, and moored there. You can read more about it here. Built by the Venetians in the 17th century, Kut – the oldest and prettiest part of Vis, where most people stay – offers a series of courtyards and passageways in limestone to explore, overhung with balconies and featuring steps rising up into the hills behind. There’s a decided Italian influence in the food, yet Vis feels more like Greece with a Dutch efficiency. But despite its low-key vibe, Vis offers plenty of sights, including an archaeological museum and churches, to avoid beach-bum boredom. A series of caves with pools of iridescent blue light (as per the film) can be seen at neighbouring Biševo island; you can also try out any type of boat, and cycling is popular through a network of submarine tunnels built by the Yugoslav army. We sailed to explore these secret army tunnels; now such a drawcard for tourists and locals alike.
You could also try out abseiling, or dive to see a B-17 wreck from WW2. We chose to swim and SUP in Vis’s Stiniva Bay, which was voted Best Beach in Europe in 2016 – most likely as a result of its rock formations and crystal clear water.
This small island, which takes just 15 minutes to cover, is a lot sleepier than its club-minded neighbour of Hvar; while Vis has 3 000 beds, Hvar has over 30 000. Cruise ships can’t drop in at Vis, and there’s just one smart hotel – which makes it a very quaint place to visit. While a certain amount of Yugoslav army-issue barbed wire remains, there’s a sense of lushness with scrubland of wild rosemary, capers and sage. Vis also has its own variety of carob tree alongside oranges and lemon trees, and all around are beautiful vineyards and olive trees.
Komiža, the island’s pretty harbour, had been tavern-ed up to allow for the big dance numbers of the film; this major fishing port also features a series of great restaurants. Ironically, Mamma Mia was showing at the open-air cinema (Summer Cinema Hrid) while we were there, which is magnificently located by the sea. It has a half-century’s tradition of screening films on a now-retired 35mm projector (which can still be toured with guidance from the cinema’s accommodating employees), and only switched to a new digital projector in 2014. A mini-bar stocks refreshing drinks, while the latest titles are featured in their original languages with Croatian subtitles. This cinema is a travel site in itself!
- Plisko Polje in Komiža
A treat on the evening of day five was when our amazing skipper took us to a family-owned and operated tavern and winery called Roki’s, at a small inland village called Plisko Polje (it was a strategic Allied airforce base during WWII).
Here, we had the opportunity to enjoy an authentic countryside atmosphere and to sample an authentic Croatian dish called Peka. This dish requires you to select from lamb, veal, fish or octopus, which is then cooked in a metal dome over glowing coals for many hours. The idea is that you call in advance by a few hours (or several days), which our skipper had done, to book your table and place your order. This experience was truly amazing – superb from start to finish – from seeing the Peka-master take charge of metal pots steaming over hot coals in the outdoor oven area; watching a skilled bread-maker throwing fresh loaves into his wood-burning oven; and sitting outside in the courtyard under twinkly lights. (On a chilly evening, you can sit inside within the rustic and cosy tavern).
On day six, our catamaran took us to the island of Brač, where we moored in Milna. Pronounced “Bratch”, this is the longest and most elevated island in the Adriatic group, with its highest peak – Vidova Gora – providing a great hike for tourists and local alike. Nearby, at Lucice Bay, some amazing scuba diving can be experienced. Otherwise, Brač reminded me of a Karoo town, with dry shrubbery and little of the lush vegetation of the other islands we had explored.
We moored just before sunset, a magical time in this region, and had sundowners before heading to the next village, Dračevica, for dinner. It turned out to be a very special find, from a few years back, of our skipper Sandro. Not open to the public, we enjoyed fresh cheese; salads; and slow-cooked roasted lamb and potatoes done in the typical Croatian style (in a pot covered with coals). Wow! This charming little place in the heart of the island, OPG: POD Česminu, serves dinner under an old oak tree and was simply outstanding. The local family who run it also make all their own local produce – from cheese, lamb, olive oil and jams, to brandy that is sold to many of the surrounding villages. Also, the olive oil is particularly delicious, originating from a rare varietal of the plant – buhavica – and over a half-million trees. Legend has it that the Venentian senate, back in 1655, was adamant that the island be carpeted with olives and imposed fines on anyone with other ideas!
Overall, I can highly recommend this trip, although it should ideally be well-planned with the help of a local skipper. The sailing you’ll experience ticks all the boxes: spectacular, crystal clear waters, natural, unspoilt, diverse, multi-faceted.
If you love the ocean, history and food, it’s likely to be a winner for you and your partner or family. What we found remarkable was that each unique village had something slightly different to offer, which made the trip really enthralling.
- A brilliant way to listen to your best tunes while onboard comes in the form of the JBL Flip 4, a 4.5 star featured waterproof and portable Bluetooth speaker, with truly amazing sound.It was an amazing aid to the joy or our trip , which you can read about more here. Twelve hours of sound; noise and echo-cancelling speakerphone; plus JBL Connect+ technology… It’s a must for those who like to sail with a tune or two!
• Another punt for the Sunsail vessel designers, is that the Leopard 454 has numerous USB charging spots throughout – including two in each room and six in the main saloon. While you may wish to leave your work devices faaaarrr away at home, most travellers have at least a smartphone, if not an iPod, camera and/or iPad with them which require much “juice”. Have no fear when it comes to finding a suitable plug to charge your device. Sunsail provides!
SUNSAIL YACHT FLOATILLA
If you’d like to try this holiday out with your whole family or a big group of friends and their kids, the Flotilla Holiday via Sunsail may be just the ticket! https://www.sunsail.com/yacht-charter/mediterranean/croatia/. It means a group of chartered yachts can sail the exact same route together, guided by a lead yacht (and its crew) who are following a pre-determined course. A relaxed and enjoyable holiday choice, one of its strong advantages is the sense of camaraderie and social aspect of travelling, in this way, with a group of your favourite people.
Benefits are that you can set sail in the mornings, follow one another during the day (as you navigate the way to the famous landmarks you want to visit), and have amazing group dinners, or beach parties, each evening. This bit of coastline is defined as Level 1, offering the easiest and most forgiving sailing possible – it is ideal for novice sailors. Also, lazy-line mooring, line-of-sight navigation and calm conditions mean you are unlikely to sail outside of your comfort zone. On a flotilla trip, advice and assistance are always just a shout away; plus much of the difficult work of charting the course and checking the weather forecasts is done for you. Even mooring, which can be tricky for the less experienced skipper, should not cause undue stress because there will always be a member of your group to help you.
We found the 454 Sunsail yacht.
to be luxurious; a well thought- and laid-out catamaran; and incredibly clever for a 45ft space. It included a neat kitchen and dining area, a workspace for a skipper to do their chart work, modern fixtures and fittings, and ample storage space in the four cabins (each with en suite loo and shower). Other benefits included the catamaran being stable in rough seas, and the provision of plenty of nooks and crannies for sunbathing (assuming you were choosing to travel with a rowdy group).
For those couples or small groups on a skippered trip with Sunsail, you’re able to relax and let your skipper take charge. We were keen to sail on occasion but, with Sandro at the helm, we could be as hands-on or laid-back as we wanted to. He also had much local knowledge and sailing expertise to share. A skippered trip worked well for us, because we could retire to our cabin or to a sunny spot to sunbathe knowing that our catamaran was in excellent hands at all times.
- Late September, when we visited Croatia, must be the perfect plan for a sailing trip because it’s exactly a month before the sailing season ends – meaning crowds are infrequent and weather is still sunny (i.e. not the unpleasant heat of summer), but chilly at night.
- Many of the stores were having sales, too, which allowed us to find bargains when it came to the things we specifically needed – such as a few warmer items of clothing. Yess!
- Also, because we were visiting towards the end of tourist season, air tickets with Turkish Airlines and Emirates proved really affordable.
- One Croatian Kuna (HRK) equates to R2,26 South African Rand.